Bill O'Reilly makes more than a million dollars a year, but he's damned if he'll spend $3.50 on a cup of coffee. "I will not go in a Starbucks," he says. He prefers a coffee shop in Manhasset, Long Island, where cops and firemen hang out. Chatting and jousting with the regulars there every morning, he says, he gets many of the questions he will use later that night to interrogate guests on his TV show, "The O'Reilly Factor." Blunt, sometimes obnoxious questions, the kind that most big-media talk-show hosts are too squeamish to ask. Like: Why do gay activists flaunt it? And just where does the Rev. Jesse Jackson get his money? Questions that are uncomfortable and often annoying to his guests but entertaining and dead-on to "the folks," as he calls his fans--a large and growing legion. As O'Reilly never tires of reminding anyone who'll listen, his book, "The O'Reilly Factor," was for 10 weeks the No. 1 best seller, while his show is the highest-rated cable-news program on TV.
Many of those fans voted for George W. Bush. So it was perhaps unsurprising on the eve of the Inauguration that O'Reilly was ushered into a private party to meet the president-elect's parents. Former First Lady Barbara Bush told O'Reilly she was reading his book. ("Did you buy it?" he inquired.) O'Reilly was flattered, but ill at ease. Then he went--reluctantly, he says--to a glitzy A-list dinner party at the Jockey Club given by a Buffy Cafritz, a longtime Washington social doyenne, whom O'Reilly refers to as "Buffy What's-Her-Name." O'Reilly said he could feel the socialites and bigwigs "measuring" him. "They're saying, 'What's he doing here?' One couple even got up to leave," O'Reilly later recalled, seeming to relish his shunning. He imitates a society matron crying, "Security! Security!"
O'Reilly loves to play the outsider, the scourge of the media elite. Combative and plain-spoken, he embodies the edgy, personality-driven programming formula that has allowed upstart Fox News to surpass its rivals in the cable-news ratings race. He is the working-class hero promoted by Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, the shrewd populist who has been sizing up voters and viewers for more than three decades. O'Reilly's motto is "keep it simple." Yet he is a complicated man, at once belligerent and self-effacing, ambitious and determined to remain humble. He can be a loudmouth but also companionable. He is Everyman on a barstool, mad as hell, but with a wink.
The chattering classes dismiss O'Reilly as a fake, and they accuse Fox News of shilling for the political right. Tucker Carlson, the conservative, bow-tied talking head on CNN's "The Spin Room," declared, "Only masochists would go on his show--or watch it. I hate to say it because it sounds snobby, but I don't know anyone who's read his book."
Maybe the punditry should pick up a copy--and start checking out the Fox News Channel weekday nights at 8. The book, a collection of rants, bromides and blunt advice, which O'Reilly relentlessly plugs on his show, has sold about a million copies. The show now often draws bigger ratings than the once almighty "Larry King Live" on CNN. When Fox News and MSNBC started up four years ago, few media analysts bet on Rupert Murdoch's low-rent Fox operation to best the widely heralded news channel established by NBC and Microsoft, yet Fox now draws consistently higher ratings than MSNBC. (NEWSWEEK and its parent, The Washington Post Company, are in strategic partnership with NBC, MSNBC and MSNBC.com.) As Fox News has risen with its raw, personality-driven programming, the older, more news-driven CNN has had to scramble to create its own stars. MSNBC executives argue that Fox appeals more to older news junkies, not the younger, higher-consuming audiences--preferred by advertisers--who tend to watch MSNBC. Maybe so, but Fox News is now slightly outdrawing MSNBC even among adults 25 to 54. The roughly 1.5 million households that tune in to "The O'Reilly Factor" on a typical night is small compared with the roughly 20 million who still watch the network evening-news shows--but more than the 1.1 million that click on the sober, high-minded "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" on PBS. But as Fox News reaches more and more households (it now claims about 58 million, versus CNN's 81 million and a regular TV network's 100 million), there is no question that O'Reilly is a phenomenon of the talk-show age.
O'Reilly's politics--and his followers'--are largely conservative, but not predictably. While he inveighs against Big Government and gay activists ("Dykes on a bike take a hike"), O'Reilly is anti-death- penalty and favors environmental regulation. Fox chief honcho Ailes bridles at the charge that Fox is promoting the GOP agenda. His network is not right wing, he says. It's the other networks that are liberal. Not to mention condescending. "The media elite think they're smarter than the rest of those stupid bastards, and they'll tell you what to think," says Ailes. "To a working-class guy, that's bulls--t."
To be sure, O'Reilly is only too willing to browbeat guests and viewers with his opinions. As a little boy, says his sister Jan, he declared, "I'm going to go on TV and tell people what to think, what's right and what's wrong." O'Reilly says he was "put on earth to be a check on power," but he is really selling class rage. And his resentment is the real thing. He grew up in a lower-middle-class housing development a few miles and a world apart from Long Island's rich and WASPy Gold Coast. His father, who he says "hit first and asked questions later," sent him to a well-to-do parochial school, where a sneering rich kid fingered O'Reilly's cheap sport coat. "I floored the guy," says O'Reilly. At Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., O'Reilly and his buddies, mostly from ethnic working-class families, crashed the mixers at neighboring Vassar, then a tony women's college. "I could feel those rich girls and their Ivy League dates measuring me," O'Reilly recalls. He once tipped over the punch bowl.
As a TV newsman, O'Reilly worked his way up to the national desk at CBS, then ABC. But he never quite fit in. "He reeked of local. He was rough, unvarnished," says a former colleague at ABC. "I refused to be big-footed and patronized," says O'Reilly. In 1989 he left ABC for the more down-market syndicated tabloid show "Inside Edition," then took a surprising detour: to get a master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. In his book, O'Reilly writes that Harvard allowed him to observe the ruling class up close.
O'Reilly was a "loner" at Harvard, said one of his professors, former CBS newsman Marvin Kalb. "But he was blunt in a very charming way. He had a candor that was meant to offend but also to amuse you and win you over." A disco fan, O'Reilly, 51, didn't marry until he was 47. He boasts in his book about having dated "hundreds of women." "I was a dancing machine," he writes. When it comes to choosing a wife, he advises: "Evaluate others the way you evaluate a car or a new suit. Is this one really right for you?" His approach to child rearing is similarly retro. Children, he writes, should "fear" their parents. But his wife, Maureen, just laughs. "You should see him with his little girl," she says. ("She's 20 months old," says O'Reilly, not missing a chance to take a swipe at his favorite hobbyhorse--"same age as Jesse Jackson's. Only she's legitimate.") At home, his disco days long over, O'Reilly is actually quite "shy" and "introspective," says Maureen. Says his sister Jan: "He can be the life of the party when he wants to be, but then he clams up. At family dinners, he sort of shuffles around. But he's very loyal."
The man who really understands O'Reilly--certainly his appeal to viewers--is Roger Ailes. The son of a factory foreman in Ohio, Ailes has been switching among politics, entertainment and news since he was a producer for an early TV talkathon, the "Mike Douglas Show," then went to work for one of Douglas's first political guests, Richard Nixon, in the 1968 presidential campaign. As a cunning media adviser to the GOP, Ailes exploited the resentment of voters on behalf of Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. (Ailes is widely credited with, or blamed for, the infamous Willie Horton ad, which was actually the work of some imitators.) As the programming guru for CNBC in the early '90s, Ailes created the Geraldo Rivera show and "Hardball With Chris Matthews." Hired by media mogul Rupert Murdoch to create the Fox News network from scratch in 1996, Ailes had the good sense to snap up O'Reilly, who, with his new Harvard degree, was looking to host a talk show that would allow him to hold forth on politics and popular culture.
On a Wednesday night in mid-January, O'Reilly is working himself up for his show, enthusiastically bashing the "elite media" for the entertainment of a visiting NEWSWEEK reporter. When it comes to holding power accountable, the big TV networks are "passive," says O'Reilly, dismissively. "There's lots of money involved. They have to do business with the government. They have to play it safe." But, the visitor asks, don't other establishment organs like The New York Times and The Washington Post break most of the big stories involving official corruption? "The New York Times!" O'Reilly splutters. "They never reviewed my book! That's snobbery! Look what they have on the cover of the Book Review this week! James Carroll [author of "Constantine's Sword"], a notorious Catholic basher! They're gonna give that huge play, but a book about the working class, about how to survive in America... "
It's showtime. At 6 feet 4, O'Reilly is imposing, but not a backslapper. His handshake is arm's length. He hates to shop for clothes and says he "won't touch mousse," though he is always patting down his wiry hair. On the set, he spies his first guest, former Clinton Labor secretary Robert Reich. "You just come from Charlie Rose?" he asks, referring to the cerebral PBS late-night host. "You gotta stop that." During a break, O'Reilly announces, to no one in particular, "Nobody likes me." Later he declares, "I am so misunderstood. It's pathetic." His camera crew just stares at him blankly.
O'Reilly's favorite segment of the night is an expose of the Los Angeles Times's "covering up" for Bill Clinton. An op-ed page editor at the Times has edited a paragraph out of a syndicated George Will column that declares, "I think it is reasonable to believe that [Bill Clinton] was a rapist." The paper has acknowledged that it made a mistake by censoring Will's column, but O'Reilly is in no mood for mercy. The omission was "insidious! Destructive to the republic!" he cries.
After the show, O'Reilly stands surrounded by his slightly cowed-looking staff, barking orders for tomorrow. The computer screen of one of his producers shows the Drudge Report, the Internet gossip column. Drudge is trumpeting a forthcoming National Enquirer story alleging that Jesse Jackson has fathered a child out of wedlock. For months O'Reilly has been raising questions about Jackson's personal finances, broadly insinuating that the civil-rights leader has been illegally using money from his tax-exempt foundations to live in high style. The attacks on Jackson are starting to make O'Reilly's boss uncomfortable. "He can't do innuendo forever. You've got to put up or shut up," says Ailes. But with the love-child disclosure, O'Reilly feels vindicated and emboldened. "The press will have to go after Jackson now," he says. "He used tax exemptions to support his babe." (Jackson denies any wrongdoing.)
O'Reilly's bookers are having difficulty lining up someone close to Jackson to come on the show the next night. Jackson himself has always refused O'Reilly's invitations, at one point privately calling one of his producers "an a--hole." Most high-ranking Democrats--and not a few Republicans--have also balked at appearing on "The O'Reilly Factor." The Gore campaign essentially boycotted the show. The excuses vary, but some politicos come right out and say they don't want to be verbally abused on national TV. O'Reilly is well aware of the difficulty of booking big-name guests, but he hectors his staff anyway. "Get me John Kerry!" he calls, referring to the Democratic senator from Massachusetts. He imitates Kerry unctuously telling him, " 'Gee, Bill, I'd love to come on your show' "--O'Reilly snorts--"but he never does! [Former New York governor Mario] Cuomo, same thing!" He complains that Cuomo has just appeared on Chris Matthews's "Hardball" "for the fourth time. C'mon!" ("We beat Matthews 3 to 1 [in the ratings]," he crows.) Finally, he growls good night to his staff. "This was the warm and fuzzy Bill," says producer Amy Sohnen with a wry smile. "I just want to hug him."
O'Reilly's critics, not to mention his trailing rivals on the talk-show circuit, are hoping that he will burn out or lose his edge. With Bill Clinton out of office, O'Reilly may miss his biggest punching bag. But Sen. Hillary Clinton will still present a target, and the elite media are not going away. "TV's cyclical," says a top executive at another network. "Viewers will get tired of O'Reilly." Possibly, but his brand of hard-nosed, regular-guy TV talk is here to stay.